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Palmhurst approves contract with Hidalgo County for ambulance service

“This article appeared in the July 2 issue of the Progress Times.”

Concerned about a potential conflict of interest, the Palmhurst City Council rejected calls to approve a contract with Med-Care EMS on Monday — and inked a deal with Hidalgo County instead.

People who opposed the agreement between Palmhurst and Hidalgo County packed City Council meetings on June 21 and June 28. They asked the City Council to consider a contract with Med-Care EMS, a privately owned ambulance company.

Mayor Ramiro J. Rodriguez Jr. and members of the City Council, though, said the romantic relationship between City Councilman Israel Silva and Ronnie Ontiveros, the owner of Med-Care EMS, concerned them.

“This did not pass the smell test,” Rodriguez said.

Palmhurst started to review options for ambulance service after Hidalgo County EMS — a privately owned ambulance company — declared bankruptcy in October 2019.

When the company shut down in May 2021, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court negotiated an agreement with the city of Pharr, which had purchased Hidalgo County EMS ambulances during a bankruptcy sale and started a city-owned ambulance service called Pharr EMS.

Pharr EMS agreed to cover Precinct 3, the western part of Hidalgo County, without charge.

Under the agreement, which encompassed Palmhurst and other small towns, Pharr EMS promised to respond to emergency calls within 20 minutes or sooner “90% of the time or otherwise in accordance with accepted standards of care in the field.”

Med-Care EMS, a well-established ambulance company that responds to 911 calls in McAllen, Edinburg and Mission, offered Palmhurst another option.

Ontiveros said her company agreed to serve Palmhurst without charge — and promised to respond to 911 calls within 12 minutes, eight minutes faster than Pharr EMS.

Med-Care EMS frequently stations an ambulance at Bannworth Park in Mission, which is just five minutes away from Palmhurst City Hall.

When the City Council met to discuss the agreement with Hidalgo County on June 21 and June 28, nearly 20 people signed up for public comment.

“If I were up there, it would be a three-year contract with Med-Care that should give the city of Pharr enough time to work out their problems and pay their own bills,” said Fern McClaugherty, a member of the Objective Watchers of the Legal System, a local watchdog organization.

State District Judge Librado “Keno” Vasquez asked the City Council to consider all options before making a decision.

Vasquez said he was speaking as a resident of Palmhurst, not a judge, and wasn’t advocating for Med-Care EMS or any other ambulance provider.

“I’m not here to tell you how to do your jobs,” Vasquez said. “But I’m hoping and I’m praying that you guys take your time and make a wise decision.”

The City Council voted 4-1 to approve the agreement with Hidalgo County on Monday afternoon. Silva was the only member of the City Council who voted against the agreement.

Silva said his relationship with Ontiveros wasn’t a factor in the decision.

“All I want is the best for our community,” Silva said. “For our city.”

Silva also sent the Progress Times a text message that read in part: “We are dealing with human lives and the city has an obligation to its citizens to fully understand the entire scope of service it will be receiving prior to entering into any contracts or inter-local agreements. I recommended that the city look for an experienced and proven ambulance provider, just like our adjacent cities of McAllen, Mission, and most other cities in Hidalgo County for that matter.”

Waiting 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive just isn’t acceptable, Silva wrote in the text message, and residents of Palmhurst deserve better.

“People’s lives will be impacted severely and better attention should be demanded,” Silva wrote. “If you see it as anything other than that, your priorities are not with the health and safety of citizens of Palmhurst.”

Ontiveros said her relationship with Silva wasn’t a conflict of interest.

“We do not live together. I live in McAllen. He lives in Palmhurst,” Ontiveros said. “We don’t have a checking account together. He’s not an employee of Med-Care. He’s not benefited in any way. I own 100% of the shares. He does not own shares in Med-Care.”

Members of the City Council, however, remained concerned about the appearance of impropriety.

“I expressed that to him in a conversation after our last meeting,” Rodriguez said. “I said: ‘You’re going to make everyone look bad if we go through with this, Commissioner Silva.’ He says: ‘I don’t care, I’m doing this for the people.’”

City Councilwoman Ofelia Peña-Perez agreed with the mayor.

“To me, it’s so unethical,” Peña-Perez said. “And, basically, I cannot support that.”

 

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